Joseph Kanon is one of my favorite writers of historical espionage, right up there with Alan Furst in evoking the spy’s world of shadows, way more than fifty shades of gray. Last year’s Istanbul Passage was a layered tale of the crossroads of East and West in 1945. Now, in Leaving Berlin (Atria, digital galley), Kanon’s back in divided post-war Germany in the rubble-strewn Soviet sector during the blockade of 1948-49.
Alex Meier is a Berlin native and novelist who escaped the city for California before the war. Standing up to the McCarthyites earns him a job with the CIA in lieu of deportation or prison. If he’ll spy on his fellow cultural emigres in East Germany, he can return to the States and the young son living with his ex-wife. Alex isn’t too happy with the arrangement, especially when he finds out his old flame is the consort of his main target, a Russian major. His life becomes infinitely more complicated when her brother escapes from a POW labor camp and needs to get medical help in the West, and when the East German police insist he become an informer. His loyalties will be tested more than once; betrayal lurks in every dark corner. There’s a shoot-out early on, then a murder and a cover-up, but the story’s less concerned with action than with discerning the traitors on all sides. The characters, with their varying backstories, are believable, even if Alex can’t believe what they say.
Olen Steinhauer signals what he’s up to at the very beginning of his clever All the Old Knives (St. Martins/Minotaur Books, paperback ARC) when CIA agent Henry Pelham discusses the state of contemporary spy fiction with a fellow airline passenger. She’s reading an old Len Deighton. “They just don’t make stories like this anymore. … You knew who the bad guys were back then.”
Actually, they do still write traditional spy novels — see Joseph Kanon, above — and Steinhauer’s new book isn’t as different as one might suppose, despite its up-to-the-minute terrorist-flavored plot and its unconventional framework. Almost all of it takes place over dinner at a quiet restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., where Henry is meeting former lover and agent Celia Favreau for the first time in five years. Both were stationed in Vienna during the catastrophic takeover of a passenger plane by a radical Islamic group. Celia left within months after the debacle to marry an older man and start a family. Ostensibly, Henry just happens to be in her neck of the woods and Celia is catching him up on her two small children, but much more is revealed in their conversation and in flashbacks. Henry’s involved in an inquiry about the hijacking — there’s lingering suspicion that a mole tipped off the terrorists — and he wants Celia’s version of events. Of course, it’s all in the official report. Or is it?
Halfway through the book, Steinhauer switches perspectives from Henry to Celia, and while her memories overlap his, they also differ on crucial points. So, who are you going to believe? Both are well-trained liars and unreliable witnesses. The narrative switches back and forth as dinner progresses. Wine flows. Delicious food consumed. The veal hardly needs a knife, but the talk becomes more pointed. In the end, a good spy tales turns on deceit and betrayal. All the Old Knives is very good indeed.
Laurie R. King’s novels mix atmosphere, history and intrigue, whether she’s writing suspense novels like 2013’s The Bones of Paris or one of her entries in the Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series, say, 2012’s Garment of Shadows, which started out in in 1920s Morocco. Her latest, Dreaming Spies (Bantam/Random House, digital galley) finds Mary and Sherlock on a steamer bound for 1924 Japan, where they disguise themselves as Buddhist pilgrims as part of a secret mission to help the royal family. It all stems from a meeting aboard ship with a young Japanese woman, who turns out to be economist, acrobat and real-life ninja, and an English lord who turns out to be a blackmailer. The leisurely narrative, stuffed with all sorts of fascinating cultural asides, is occasionally punctuated by action scenes, but it’s Mary and Sherlock’s wits that make the story so entertaining. Their Japan adventure is only partially resolved, however, and there’s more mystery a year later when their Japanese friends and foes come calling in Mary’s beloved Oxford with its “dreaming spires.”